The United States of America celebrates its birthday on July 4. That day marks the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the formal separation of the colonies from Great Britain. But should July 4 really be the nation’s birthday? See how much you know about this founding document of the USA?
Independence Day Is Technically July 2
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress proposing independence for the American colonies. The measure additionally called for the newly-independent colonies to form foreign alliances and “a plan for confederation.”
Many members of Congress believed the actions Lee proposed to be premature or wanted further instructions from their colonies before taking action. Voting was deferred until July 2. On that date, Congress adopted the first part of the Lee Resolution:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
The resolution passed with 12 colonies approving the measure. New York did not vote in support of independence until July 9.
July 4 is when the Declaration was adopted
After voting on independence, the Continental Congress needed to finalize a document explaining the move to the public. It had been proposed in draft form by the Committee of Five (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson), and it took two days for Congress to agree on the edits.
It Wasn’t Signed on July 4th
Most of the members of the Continental Congress signed a version of the Declaration in early August 1776, in Philadelphia. The names of the signers were released publicly in early 1777. So that famous painting showing the signing of the Declaration on July 4, 1776, is a bit of an exaggeration.
The Declaration’s association with Independence Day came from a lapse of memory
Historian Pauline Maier said in her 1997 book about the Declaration that no member of Congress recalled in early July 1777 that it was almost a year since they declared their freedom from the British. They finally remembered on July 3rd, and July 4th became the day that seemed to make sense for celebrating independence.
Thomas Jefferson Was Not the Sole Author
Although Thomas Jefferson is often called the “author” of the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t the only person who contributed important ideas. Jefferson was a member of a five-person committee appointed by the Continental Congress to write the Declaration. The committee included Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman.
After Jefferson wrote his first draft of the Declaration, the other members of the Declaration committee and the Continental Congress made 86 changes to Jefferson’s draft, including shortening the overall length by more than a fourth. Read Jefferson’s “rough draft” of the Declaration here.
Jefferson was quite unhappy about some of the edits made to his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. He had originally included language condemning the British promotion of the slave trade (even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner). This criticism of the slave trade was removed in spite of Jefferson’s objections.
Benjamin Franklin attempted to console Jefferson by telling him a story about the dangers of submitting one’s work to others for revision. As Jefferson later recalled it, Franklin said:
“I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. when I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice Hatter … was about to open shop for himself—his first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. he composed it in these words ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats—for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined: but he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word ‘Hatter,’ tautologous because followed by the words ‘makes hats’ which showed he was a Hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money,’ were useless as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood ‘John Thomson sells hats.’ “Sells hats?” says his next friend. “Why nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?” It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it. The rather, as there was one painted on the board. so his inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thomson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.”
Six People Signed Both the Declaration and also the Constitution
Franklin was among a handful of people who signed both historical documents. The others were George Read, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, George Clymer, and James Wilson.
How Many Original Copies of the Declaration Exist?
Congress decreed, “That copies of the declaration be sent to several assemblies, conventions, and committees or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops.” The Declaration was taken to a print shop at Second and Market Streets where John Dunlap printed an estimated 100-200 copies. The authenticated copy was not saved.
There are 26 known copies of the Dunlap broadsides. Three of them are in British repositories. The Continental Congress did not send any copies to King George III.
The 26th copy was discovered in 1989 in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. It was tucked behind an old picture in a frame and it cost the buyer $4. That version of the Declaration was eventually acquired by TV producer Norman Lear for $8.1 million.
The Declaration and Constitution Were in Fort Knox During World War II
Both documents were packed up about two weeks after Pearl Harbor. They were given a military escort to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where they remained until late 1944.
There really is a message written on the back of the Declaration of Independence
In the movie National Treasure, a secret message written on the back of the Declaration is a key plot device. In reality, there is a visible message on the back that reads, “Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776.” It’s not as dramatic as the movie and experts believe it was a label added at some point when the Declaration was in storage.
Jefferson and Adams Died on the Declaration’s 50th Anniversary
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the vote to approve the Declaration of Independence.
Fiji achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1970, but don’t ask the government to prove it. The actual legal document proclaiming their independence seems to have been misplaced.Keep reading
It is impossible to overstate the impact of George Washington. His willingness to give up power when he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and his decision to step down after two terms as President set the standard for the peaceful transfer of power. His words and actions shaped American democracy in…Keep reading
Somewhere out there is a fortune in buried gold. We have coded directions on how to find it. One of America’s most sacred documents is the key to deciphering the mystery. It sounds like the plot to the next installment of National Treasure, but this is one situation where reality may be just as interesting…Keep reading